Spiritual Headship vs Mutual Submission?

Spiritual Headship vs Mutual Submission?

This post is a response to this one at radical catholic mom’s blog; but it stands alone and you don’t need to read any of the preceding conversation to get what I’m saying. Thanks, rcm for a stimulating discussion!

The concept of �mutual submission�  in Ephesians 5 does not abolish a husband�s authority as spiritual head. In fact, Paul�s extended metaphor requires the notion of headship in order to work. In the same way that calling Christ the Key of David is predicated on the understanding that the function of a key is to lock and unlock, Paul�s spousal metaphor is predicated on the understanding that the function of a husband is to be head of the household.

To abolish masculine headship is a human solution to the problem of male tyranny. However, the divine solution is even more radical than the solution of the most radical of radical feminists: God doesn�t abolish male headship, he subordinates it.

In fact, the divine solution to domestic tyranny is precisely parallel to the divine solution to political tyranny. Pilate wasn�t the only one who misunderstood the nature of Christ�s kingship. The Jews misunderstood, the apostles misunderstood, Peter misunderstood. In washing his disciples� feet at the Last Supper Christ demonstrated the paradox of the servant-king, a radical rearrangement that perhaps doesn�t seem as shocking to us as it should because we�ve grown accustomed to the idea and because we live in a democracy not a monarchy.

Paul�s language in Ephesians evokes that moment of servitude as it also evokes the most shocking moment in Christ�s human life: the moment when he laid down his life as an oblation for humanity. The divine creator becomes the sacrifice, the king becomes the servant, this is the shocking reversal that Paul is evoking. Likewise, in Christian marriage: the husband, head of the household, source of authority, king of his castle, becomes subordinate. In doing so, however, he does not lose his authority or his headship any more than Christ loses his kingship or his divinity.

The two become one flesh, one body. The husband does not cease to be head of that body, but he places his headship in service to his wife. Don�t forget that in the ancient world men had absolute control, even power of life and death over their household. There were no more checks and balances in the domestic power structure than there were in the political power structure. (Senatorial Rome, with her historical distrust of kings, was actually something of an exception in this regard; though by the time of Christ she had backslid as emperors consolidated power and the senate became a puppet.)

Like I said, the Church is more radical than the most radical feminist. The feminist solution is either to seize power completely, substituting a matriarchy for a patriarchy; to abolish power completely; or to share power perfectly. Giving all the power to the woman is not a solution it just reverses the problem, allowing for a female tyranny instead of a male one. Neither is the abolition of power a solution. Power can�t be abolished. It can be transferred or it can be ceded or it can be shared or it can be usurped but it cannot be abolished. Less radical feminists and moderate people who don�t consider themselves feminists at all call for perfect power sharing. But this is a balancing act that is too tricky for most real human beings, power sharing quickly becomes a power struggle. The American Founding Fathers recognized this truth which is why they instituted the checks and balances system. It�s a realistic solution because it recognizes the fallen nature of man. Most of the time what actually happens in a power sharing situation is either a constant power struggle or else one side or the other seizes control.

But the Christian ideal for marriage solves the power struggle problem not by abolishing the traditional relationships between man and woman but by transforming them. In a Christian marriage what you have is not two people sharing power or two people vying for power, not two people at all but one body, one flesh. The masculine role as head of the household is therefore transformed as well. He cannot lord it over his wife anymore than the head can lord it over the heart. As St Paul says, he should care for his wife as he does his own flesh. Now that we understand man and woman as one flesh, we understand that his abusing her in any way becomes self-abuse. By following Christ and subordinating his headship out of love for Christ, a husband�s control over his wife becomes self-control. And most radically he exercises his lordship over his family most perfectly when he acts as a servant. He is most truly what he is supposed to be as husband when he lays down his life, ceasing to be himself at all.

Our understanding of the radical transformation that occurs in the sacrament of marriage might be understood by looking at the transformation that occurs in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Even though the Eucharist may still appear to be bread and wine, our faith tells us it is more. It is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Just so does the relationship between men and women in a sacramental Christian marriage appear to be the same as a secular contract between two people: the power dynamic might appear to be one of a man who controls and a woman who is controlled. But the spiritual reality is that the sacramental marriage covenant transforms them into one flesh, one body.

The most radical feminists sometimes attempt to characterize all sex acts between men and women as rape. They see the power relationship as so defining that there is no way a woman can cede control over her body to a man as to make it anything else. But in truth in the marital act a woman willingly submits to her husband, making her body a gift to him, allowing him control. He doesn�t rape her or take control of her against her will. In return, JPII reminds us, a good husband seeks to please his wife even as she submits. His concern is to ensure her pleasure and not to seek his own gratification. Characterizing male headship as tyranny or domination is like characterizing the sex act as rape. Both characterizations are distortions that mistake the proper function for abuse.

Understanding spiritual headship it seems to me is not only fundamental to a proper understanding of the Catholic idea of family but also of the priesthood and spiritual fatherhood, of the papacy, the Magesterium and of ecclesiology. The husband and father is head of the domestic church as the priest is head and spiritual father of his parish, the bishop is head of the local church, the pope is head of the church on earth and Christ is head of the universal Church.

God chose to make humanity as two sexes for a reason and I think it was to teach us something about the nature of the Trinity and of our relationship to him. Furthermore, there�s a reason for the imbalance of power between the sexes, or rather for our different areas of strength, for our complementarity. Instead of denying those differences, we must seek to understand them and especially to understand their proper function in the divine order. JPII argued that the in its deepest mystery the nature of the Trinitarian Godhead is that of a family. Untangling the threads of the human family helps us to more clearly understand our relationship with God. Theologians are quick to remind us that the family analogy does break down very quickly, as all analogies must when trying to understand God; but it is a necessary starting place.

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.